Complements and threats

I’ve written about this before but I want to address it again after a small insight. (Please excuse my privilege in not having had this insight, lol.)

I can empathise with women who feel uncomfortable being flirted with in a certain way after having experienced something similar myself. Homosexual creeps in the sauna have made me see more clearly what it is that is objectionable about ‘being complemented’, objectified and having your sexuality take a prominent place in an interaction, whether it is overt or not. I always ‘knew’ it, and it’s quite simple, but sometimes it takes experience for a truth to resonate: it is about vulnerability and privacy. The weaker your position, the more prominent the feeling of vulnerability is, and the more danger is associated with the interaction. The fact that someone is interested in you may be complementary, but attraction is a mercurial beast. Rejection can incur resentment and violence. It follows that the targets of such interest are often forced into a difficult position. There is pressure to appease those who are expressing interest – and again, this is especially true if the latter are relatively powerful and/or insecure, i.e., liable to take rejection badly. This creates a catch-22: one wants to be attractive in order to attract individuals that one is reciprocally attracted to, but a byproduct of this strategy is attracting those who one is not reciprocally attracted to. And this can be problematic for the reasons just mentioned.

There are two obviously bad types of solution to this problem: advise people not to present themselves as attractive, or advise/forbid those who are attracted to others not to act on their attraction. Both ‘solutions’ eliminate the problematic encounters I mentioned, but they also eliminate the encounters we all want to promote. So, we need to be more subtle. Perhaps we should advise people to craft their presentation to attract the kinds of people they are interested in, and forbid creepy or invasive flirtation. But these suggestions are hugely vague. To some extent, that may be the nature of the game; this seems like the kind of domain where we need uncodifiable practice wisdom (what Aristotle called ‘phronesis’) and where highly contextual considerations come into play.

And notice that I framed my suggestions differently: to those who receive unwanted interested we may offer advice. We are concerned with the prudential matter of their safety, wellbeing and social and/or romantic success. To those who express sexual interest, we may offer certain proscriptions. We are concerned with their (witting or unwitting) violation of the rights of others. If you don’t like rights talk, or don’t think there are rights to ‘feel safe’ in public, then similar or downgraded types of proscription will have to do.

There is an interesting and important question about how we should regulate behaviour in this realm. At the broadest level, this is the question of whether the types of proscriptions that apply here should take the form of folkways (expectations about what’s normal), mores (moralized norms), taboos (which pertain to the core of society’s sense of justice and decency), or formal legislation. The more seriously you take the threat to (largely) women’s actual and perceived safety, as well as to women’s status in society in general, the higher up you’re likely to go in your classification of such proscriptions. Having said that, I’m not sure it’s logically inconsistent to take such threats very seriously, and yet be reluctant to support severe proscriptions. Libertarian types might, for instance, combine these two attitudes.

I also want to emphasize that part of the reason I classify my suggestion to those receiving attention as advice is precisely that it’s a very difficult area. How do you attract ‘the right people’? Should you be expected to know what they are? The more unreasonable such expectation are more unreasonable it seems to classify suggestions such as mine as a type of demand rather than advice.

Now, you could make the same argument for the proscription against being creepy. What is being creepy? Should you be expected to know what being creepy is? Is it unreasonable to demand that people not be creepy or invasive etc.? If so, then perhaps we should only issue advice here, rather than anything resembling a demand.

I don’t think that works. I haven’t got tight arguments here, but consider the following as food for thought. Firstly, ‘being attractive’ is often less under the control of an individual than signaling attraction (at least, beyond subtle and largely involuntary signals). It also seems like a more difficult matter to assess (as well as control) one’s presentation than to assess (and control) how one communicates interest. Hence, it is more unreasonable to expect that individuals know how to modulate their communication of interest than self-presentation in the relevant ways. Second, the position of the two actors is different: one is a potential offender, the other a potential victim. As is regularly pointed out, it generally seems wrong to make demands upon people to act in a way to minimize risks to themselves. This is not an exceptionless principle. We do make demands on people to wear helmets, seatbelts, remain under the intoxication threshold whilst driving, etc. We do not merely advise these things, we insist upon them. But usually the risks are associated with societal as well as individual costs. Combine these points and it seems reasonable to make a fairly robust distinction between the two kinds of suggestions: advice vs. proscription.

I started this post with a personal experience angle, which is very “standpoint epistemology”. When it comes to ethics and politics, standpoint and personal experience is very important. While lived experience and group identity are no substitute for argument, and don’t affect the validity of logical inferences, they are sometimes crucial to understanding (and therefore, often, seeing the truth of) the premises of various arguments. Indeed, I think that ethical discourse is soaked in this kind of experiential dimension… moral disagreement is often a process of exchanging perspectives, insights, feelings and promoting certain descriptions over others in order to draw out different intuitions and reactive attitudes.


The Nature of Gender

First question: what is the ontological status of gender? Gender is a social construct. I take social constructs to be real things whose existence is contingent on the beliefs and practices of humans. There is a lot here to be unpacked. These notions of realness and ontological contingency are actually quite  vague. Not only do they come in degrees, but their conditions of application are tricky to spell out. Speaking very loosely, ‘realness’ in this context is about effects on our experience and verifiable impacts on us, even if such impacts aren’t represented directly in our conscious experience. In this broad sense, fictions like unicorns have some small degree of reality insofar as they appear in fantasies, art and stories. Things we call unicorns have a sort of life of their own in our subjective world. They would have even more reality for a delusional psychotic having apparent sensory contact with them in her everyday life. Gravity has a much greater degree of reality. It has a huge and obvious impact on our experience and plans. Money also has a high degree of reality. But it has a different nature; it is not a physical force in the way that gravity is. What is its nature then? It is some kind of abstract entity. Not just any kind of abstract entity though – it is a paradigm case of a social construct. Not all abstract entities are uncontroversially social constructs. Mathematics may be considered as dealing with abstract objects, but seems quite different to money. This is where the the idea of ‘contingency’ and subjectivity comes in. If we didn’t believe in money or treat bits of paper and metal and book-keeping entries as money, we would just have bits of paper, metal and symbols in books and electronic files. That is, money would cease to exist. Not so with gravity. Most philosophers would, for this reason, place money in the category of social constructs and gravity in the category of objective facts – i.e., facts which are not contingent on our beliefs and practices. Mathematics would also usually be considered objective as opposed to socially constructed, even though it seems abstract and conceptual, like money.

In the case of gender, I think we have a partial social construct. I claim that it is not true that if we didn’t have gender-specific beliefs and treat people as belonging to gender categories, gender would simply cease to exist. But it would change. As I will briefly describe, gender refers to a constellation of traits. The way that they behave, statistically speaking, is not entirely up to us. This is to say that their behaviour is not entirely due to nurture. There is a nature component. There is nothing new about this view. It is just the rejection of the blank slate picture of human nature in this regard.

Next question: what is the content and role of gender? Gender is a way of classifying people, which typically uses male and female categories (although there are more complex gender systems which have addition categories and/or subcategories). The role of gender classification is complex and has many dimensions: economic, psychological, sexual, social, cultural, political, military, and so on. Gender sorts people into two (or more) types and assigns them roles in each of these domains. Associated with each gender is a vaguely-defined cluster of physical and behavioural traits. In contemporary ‘European-Western’ culture, feminine traits include physical traits such as softer, cooler skin, a lighter frame, higher pitched voice, etc., as well as psychological/behavioural traits like being caring/empathetic, attracted to men, gentle, having higher agreeableness as well as neuroticism, etc. Purportedly masculine traits include being stronger, having more rugged/masculinized features, having deeper voices, wider shoulders, being taller, hairier, more muscular, more object-oriented, attracted to women, adventure-seeking, risk-taking, aggressive, competitive, assertive, less agreeable, less neurotic, less emotionally intelligent and introspective, etc. Of course, just because you are assigned the male gender or the female gender, you are not automatically presumed to fulfil the paradigmatic or archetypical form of that gender. At most, you are thought to potentially embody that form, and perhaps you are also encouraged to embody it as a normative ideal.

How is gender assigned? Typically one’s status as a man or woman is assigned according to one’s biological sex, which is defined in terms of chromosomes, genitals, hormones and gamete production (sperm or ova). But there are atypical cases. Transsexuals demonstrate that gender can be assigned without regard to sex. Gender, in principle, floats free of biological sex. It is simply a cluster of associated traits, and if a person embodies enough of those traits to bear a ‘family resemblance’ to the relevant gender, then that person may legitimately be assigned to that gender category.

Two points to notice here.

First, the fact that gender and sex can come apart suggests that they are not identical and that one’s status with respect to sex is not a necessary condition for one’s gender status. Gender and sex, as words and concepts, behave differently. Gender is more of a family resemblance concept, whereas sex is more of a natural kind concept.

Second, what I have said makes it sound as if gender is a socially assigned category or status, which violates the idea that simply identifying in a certain way determines one’s gender status. But the debate here is about how we want to define/assign gender status. This is an interesting political example of a “metasemantic negotiation”, i.e., a negotiation over how to correctly use a given word. Is one correctly described as a man if one feels like a man? Or only if the community regards one as a man? Regardless of how we do and should correctly use such words, I think both sides can agree that what guides the assignment of gender is the cluster of gender-typical traits which fills the content of the relevant gender construct. They are just fighting about whether an individual’s assessment of how they ‘score’ with respect to those traits can trump the community’s assessment.

Why is gender typically assigned in this way. i.e., according to sex? What is the relationship between gender and sex? I said that gender is a social construct. I don’t think sex is. The sex distinction would exist if people stopped believing in it and stopped acting as if it were real. There would be a distinction to be drawn between organisms that produce sperm and those that produce ova (even if there would still be exceptions). The interesting question is why gender is assigned on the basis of sex. The answer, I think, is that gender, although a social construct, draws on patterns of correlation between various physical/behavioural/psychological traits. The stability of these correlations suggests causal-biological processes are involved in these correlations.

Sex is a strong predictor of which cluster of gendered traits an individual will tend to embody. But it does not determine that one will. Nor is the correlation between such traits guaranteed. Any combination of them in an individual is possible. There is no law of nature prohibiting an individual from being extremely neurotic, heavy-framed, exceptionally strong and assertive, with a high-pitched voice, being attracted to women, being gentle, having breasts and masculine facial features, and so on.

When it comes to almost all of these physical/ psychological/ behavioural traits, the explanation of their occurrence is seldom either nature or nurture. My contention is that there is a significant natural element and that in many cases the same element (e.g., hormones) is driving multiple traits which are thereby correlated. The size of the element will vary depending on the trait. (This is where a lot of speculative, descriptive disagreement lies, I think.) Thus, with some traits, the nurture explanation is more significant, so that we could design a culture that would eliminate the correlation between that trait and the sex it is typically associated with, where ‘typically’ is defined relative to contemporary western culture. With others, the natural element is so strong that no amount of cultural re-engineering is likely to eliminate the correlation. This will occur more often with certain physical traits, I’d wager.

There is a middle ground of traits which have significant natural and cultural determinants. Within this group of traits, we may find some traits problematic such that we wish to abolish them entirely. Very contentiously, aggression might be an example of a ‘gendered trait’ we wish to do without. With others, we might simply wish to eliminate their currently sexed distribution. For example, object-orientation. In these cases, such social-political objectives may be achievable, but at the cost of continuously fighting nature. This may be doable; we just have to engineer our social and educational systems in suitable ways.

Conclusion: my core claim is that gender categories in each culture glom onto a statistical pattern which has an explanation which is at least partly biological. But they will do so in different ways, emphasizing different traits within the cluster of traits that correlate with each sex, and this might be due to various social and cultural influences and interests.

There are two extreme views on gender that I reject:

1. Gender essentialism

I take gender essentialism to be the view that every person sexed male necessarily has all the masculine traits (has the masculine essence), and every person sexed female necessarily has all the feminine traits (has the feminine essence). That seems clearly wrong. The reality is messy.

With respect to any gendered trait, we could draw up a distribution curve with the x-axis plotting how high individuals score on that trait, and the y-axis plotting how many individuals get counted at that score. If we divide a population by sex and graph their distribution, we might get two bell curves. How far apart they are indicates how gendered the trait is. Take something like height. The curve for males will be to the right of the curve for females. But unless they are so far apart that they are non-overlapping, there will be many females who are taller than many males. So it cannot be the case that all females are shorter than all males. That would be a crude essentialist claim. I imagine most people sympathetic to essentialism would back away from measurable quantities like height and appeal to more nebulous feminine qualities to avoid such objections, or soften the requirement for exceptionless generalisations.

2. Radical social constructionism

This is the view that there is no biological basis for the way that gender categories are constructed. This seems implausible. I find it difficult to believe is that we could construct a gender (e.g., how ‘a man’ tends to look and act) in an arbitrary fashion, i.e., in a way which ignores the way that certain traits correlate together and with biological sex. To illustrate, imagine that we artificially created a culture which inverted our gender system – which told its boys to act like we tell our girls to act, and vice versa. Would this artificial system be sustainable, or would it encounter fatal resistance from experience?

While the clusters of traits that correlate with sex are not static (they can be manipulated in degree and perhaps even to some extent in kind, by nurture), there are naturally-defined constraints and contours of resistance. For example, it seems plausible that being sexed female (producing ova) correlates with being primarily sexually attracted to males. But we know that lesbianism and/or bisexuality is common and it is plausible that it would be more common if it were more culturally normalized. The thing I doubt is that a culture could tell those humans sexed female to be primarily sexually attracted to females. There isn’t enough of a biological grounding for that particular version of gender construct to get off the ground. There would be too many females who would look around at the men and get horny, and not look at the women and get as horny. And this seems to be due to biological factors. The case could be made more strongly for men I think…


The questions here were descriptive, and many disputes regarding gender are descriptive. But until we explore the normative questions regarding gender, it can be hard to see why such descriptive disagreements get people so worked up. And indeed it does often seem weird to me how non-scientists passionately dispute about how much the correlation between gender and sex exists and is natural, especially given how speculative a lot of this is… I address one prominent normative question in another post: should we abolish gender?

Codgerly take on social media groupthink

Another speculative hypothesis: social media diminishes our appreciation of, and skill in detecting objective value. It encourages us to value and assess things based on how many likes (etc.) they get. There are two problems with this. First, positive feedback from a community – online or not – does not necessarily indicate what that community finds intrinsically valuable. It could just be what people somewhat condescendingly refer to as ‘validation’. Second, even if and when it does indicate what the community finds intrinsically valuable, this does not entail that it is intrinsically valuable, at least according to an objectivist theory of value. I subscribe to such a theory. With Susan Wolf, I don’t think that there are values soaked into the cloth of reality, but nor do I think value is determined simply by intersubjective agreement. We have to look at the things themselves to see if they are valuable, and intersubjective agreement is only a defeasible indicator of that. My hypothesis is that insofar as our assessment of things is mediated by social media, we become lazy and spend less time thinking for ourselves about what is true and valuable. Of course, we have always been embedded in communities and influenced by what others think. The difference that social media makes here is a difference of degree rather than kind. The input from others is constant, instant and attaches to more of the things we encounter and interact with than ever before. From what looks good to news stories to music, we come across these things in the posts of others and post them to others, and all this tends to come with comments and reacts attached. It is then very easy to think that what is good, true, valuable, accurate and so on is what our community takes it to be.

Social media supercharges and perverts a fundamentally democratic ethos which appeals to the ‘wisdom of the crowd’. There is an old trend here, and it connects with capitalism and the advertising industry. The idea is to sell  people on the idea that “what most people who are like you choose to do should be the optimal choice for you”. It is natural to copy the behaviours of people within the crowd that we identify with; the advertising industry just ruthlessly exploits this predisposition. One existential problem with this, as Louis Menand puts it in a book review of Against Everything, is that “if you are doing what everyone around you is doing, you are not thinking, and if you are not thinking, you are missing out on your own life.”

Objection: the community, the crowd, is not always univocal. This is obviously true. And instances of discord are actually opportunities to reflect for ourselves. Unfortunately, the internet, as so many have pointed out – going back to Marshall Mcluhan before it was even invented! – has facilitated tribalization as much as, and along with, global connection. Thus, we become guided by the judgements of our tribe or community as it appears online, which means we can easily secure univocality in the midst of controversy.

Should we abolish gender?

I think there is a defensible rationale for abolishing gender as we currently understand it. It might have been useful in simpler societies, but they seem inadequate to serve the complex needs of people in diverse liberal societies. Part of the problem is a cultural shift. I think there is a relationship between consumerist individualism and the desire for a more accommodating ‘gender structure’ – kids these days want to be all sorts of things, and don’t like being told what to do (not that they ever did). They have been told they can be anything, and that fulfilment comes from being a unique individual and having different experiences. The other part of the problem is that with a larger population plus the internet and social media etc., exceptions to gender rules are more visible. A liberal society wants to tolerate and accommodate all of those exceptions. To liberals, it is a violation to force minorities into the moulds that the majority embraces; liberalism is a check on the tyranny of the majority. It also seems plausible that the nature of modern society generates more diversity in the way that gendered characteristics are combined and distributed. There are heaps of subcultures and there is more experimentation going on. Furthermore people don’t need to fit traditional roles as much. Desk-workers don’t need to prove their physical discipline like a ‘real man’, though they might choose to do so in the gym etc.

So why have genders them at all? Well in simpler days, it might have been useful to have gender roles insofar as most individuals in more traditional societies were such that those gender roles suited them. A gender archetype, it seems to me, is essentially a cluster of characteristics that we bunch together. Descriptively, we think that they naturally tend to go together. Normatively, we think that they should go together. It’s perhaps an unfortunate psychological quirk of humans, but the descriptive tends to drift into the normative, even if we don’t explicitly argue for the inference from one to the other.

My point here is that insofar as that clustering does tend to naturally occur, it is useful for individuals sexed male to be handed guidelines for how to live which have a chance of resonating with their nature. Same for females. Of course, there were always exceptions, and we always permitted some variation. Moreover, I doubt that gender roles in any society were ever absolute and completely binary. The ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are vague categories which bleed into each other and have countless subdivisions within them (i.e., types of masculinity).

Essentialist philosophers can try to seek out what unites those all those subcategories into two master categories – i.e., to identify the essence of masculinity and femininity – but I think the history of analytic philosophy shows that this is a bit of a wild goose-chase. It is hard to come up with essences for even the most basic and concrete sorts of things (artefacts like chairs); it is fanciful to think we can do so for highly nebulous and complex concepts like ‘the masculine’. That isn’t to say there are no distinctions here. But I think we should regard the distinction as flexible, subtle and historically evolving, even if it may evolve within certain roughly defined natural and conceptual boundaries).


When we turn to modern societies, it might not be so useful to do things this way. Instead, we might consider adopting an open-ended smorgasbord of ‘role-models’ that combine ‘gendered’ characteristics in a vast array of ways.

But in the same way that parents in old times could tell their kids to ‘be a man’, parents in the SJW future could tell their kids to ‘be a warrior fairy lizard queen’. They probably won’t though, because they’re liberal. After all, the point, for the progressive, is not to replace a simple tyranny with a complex one, where parents and society have more options for ‘telling you how to behave’. The point is (1) to get rid of ‘toxic’ manifestations of gender archetypes, and (2) to allow each individual to express their own nature with the least tyrannical control possible.

Traditionalist conservatives will cringe at this aspect of the project. They tend to be more pessimistic about human nature, and think that we need to be told what to do in some ways. Progressives might reply that we should only tell people what to do when there is moral transgression at stake; when it comes role models and guidelines for living, the stakes are not moral, they are existential. Let the kid decide who he wants to be, so long as that doesn’t involve doing bad things**. The conservative might think that the boundary isn’t so clear as the progressive makes it out to be…

But what is the conservative objection to smashing the gender binary into a galaxy of gender shards, as distinguished from their objection to the parental delinquency and general cultural nihilism of ‘anything goes liberalism’?

There is a largely intellectual worry that some have about hyper-constructivist progressivism. They worry that such progressives are missing out on a basic fact of human experience: that we can roughly classify humans into two gender types, and that there is something deep and valuable about those types. There is also a more characteristically, essentially conservative aversion to such radical cultural shifts. The way we have organised our society is deeply influenced by ancient gender roles. Who knows what will happen if we suddenly abandon those roles? I don’t know. Do you?


** The tension here is that insofar as the point was (1) to abolish toxic genders, it seems like the progressive will have to place some restrictions on the kinds of role-models which gain currency in society. If kids spontaneously seek out traditional gender role models, should parents or progressive police step in somehow? I suspect many progressives will want to leave the outcome largely up to the marketplace of ideas (though they wouldn’t use such ideologically polluted phraseology), and simply do their bit to see their values win out in the general culture. That is, they would promote preferred role models and make them as attractive as possible to young people.

My own speculation is that something like the man/woman gender binary would persist, and would even re-emerge after a nuclear holocaust wiped out the entire human population except a few innocent babies who managed to start up their own new civilization. But that is speculation. We haven’t run any such experiment, and are unlikely to for obvious reasons. But I take the point that there are many ways that such gender types can be expressed. There are different classificatory schemes in different cultures.  That variation is interesting. But certain themes seem persistent across cultures.

Deflationism and Nature with a capital ‘N’

Some questions in philosophy seem so hard to answer that we begin to think perhaps they are nonsensical or malformed in some way. Our attention might then turn to the language in which the suspect question is put. Perhaps we can rejigger its wording to help us find the answers more easily. Consider, for example, the question of whether holes exist. We could change our language so that instead of talking about ‘holes’ we talk about ‘perforated objects’, or change what we mean by words to achieve that effect. In doing so, we can more easily answer the question, it seems.

But is something odd or illicit going on here? Can we solve a problem by figuring out how to talk about it in a different way, or have we just changed the topic? How do these kinds of linguistic maneuvers relate to the metaphysics – i.e., our inquiry into what the world is like, at a fundamental level? A true believer in the metaphysics of holes might claim that settling the easy question of whether perforated objects exist does not settle the question of whether holes exist.[1]

Ted Sider, in Writing the Book of the World (2011), addresses something like this problem. The deflationist about the metaphysics of holes might claim two things: (1) that the meaning of ‘hole’ is mysterious or ambiguous, and (2) for each precisification of that meaning, the answer to the question ‘are there holes?’ is straightforward. The nonsubstantiveness that is exposed when deflationists focus on language in this way is due to the answers being easy once we have disambiguated the question. It is only when we imagine that there are answers to questions put in pre-theoretical, vague, ordinary, indeterminate, ambiguous (etc.) terms that we think there are deep, puzzling, and difficult but yet genuine, questions to be pondered.

Sider has a reply to this kind of deflationist. He might grant the above, but say that some disambiguations are better than others. We should adopt concepts that carve at nature’s joints, and use these to furnish the meanings of our words when we pose metaphysical questions. So when we ask ‘do holes exist?’, we should interpret the question in the way that uses more fundamental, natural, or joint-carving concepts. To see what he means by this, notice that for any given concept, it seems like there are multiple alternative concepts in the “vicinity”. There are, for example, multiple concepts of ‘rock’. To take a stark example to illustrate the point, there is the geological concept of a solid aggregate of one or more minerals, but there is also the gerrymandered concept of a mineral found on Earth. The second concept wouldn’t apply to a molecularly identical sample of basalt found on some distant planet. Sider would say that the geological concept is more natural than the gerrymandered concept, and this is because the first tracks the ‘structure of the world’, or ‘carves at its joints’ better than the second.

Returning to holes, there are multiple possible concepts of holes in the vicinity. For example, we could take it to be the concept of a perforated object, or the ‘guest’ in the hole region (the empty space itself, or whatever fills the hole), or a part of the ‘host’ (the lining of the hole), and so on. Although for each concept the answer may be relatively easy to answer, it is hard to know which concept, if any, is more fundamental in the aforementioned sense. So when we pose the question ‘do holes exist’? we assume for the sake of inquiry that there is some relevant bit of structure in the world and stipulate that by ‘hole’ we mean something expressed by the concept (whatever it is) that is most natural. Part of answering it will then be figuring out which concept we are dealing with. We don’t want to bias the investigation by assuming at the outset what precisely ‘holes’ means. How do we figure out which is fundamental? It is hard. Partly we work from coherentist considerations, working out which are our best theories in a variety of domains, seeking principles and concepts which do the most work in terms of explanation and unification with the least theoretical cost, and so on. (This is the part of Sider’s program that I understand least well, and seems crucial).

In this way, it seems to me, Sider regards questions put in pre-disambiguated ‘ordinary’ terms as sometimes substantive. He argues that we shouldn’t reject a question just because “the ideology needed to state [it] differs from one’s own”. To hammer in this point with a second nail, notice that ‘do holes exist?’ can be attacked by the deflationist by focusing on the meaning of ‘exist’ rather than ‘hole’. As Sider puts it, speaking on behalf of the deflationist: “I don’t know what you mean! Is [the question] whether holes are causally efficacious? Is it whether some of their properties fail to supervene on the presence of matter and its arrangement?’ It seems like none of the deflationist’s proposed disambiguations capture what the metaphysician about holes is interested in. They might have easy answers, but the question of existence is interesting and difficult.

I am not sure that I get what Sider is saying here. Like the deflationist, I am puzzled by the metaphysician who thumps the table and claims that she is interested in the ordinary, obvious sense of ‘exist’. At present, my best hope of understanding this insistence is to revert to the same methodological vindication of the substantiveness of metaphysics outlined above: when the metaphysician asks ‘do holes exist?’, she is seeking out a natural way of thinking about things with respect to existence – a way perhaps not yet clearly grasped, but which is presupposed for inquiry’s sake.

For further illustration, consider another dispute, this time a dispute in mereology over how many objects there are in a world w with two point-sized entities. Party A says that there are two objects; Party B says there are three (the third constituted by their sum). This dispute seems trivial to me. I lean towards deflationism about such mereological questions. Both parties agree that there are two point-sized objects. What is B asserting that A denies? That the sum of these simple objects grounds the existence of a third complex object. My intuitive response is that whether or not we grant this claim depends on the way we use language (or, alternatively perhaps, the way we think about things). Again, on Sider’s view, this intuitive response can be clarified in the following way. Crucial words either are, or aren’t fundamental. For example, the meaning of ‘object’ either carves at the joints or it doesn’t.

Suppose that it does. In that case, the world might have a structure according to which there are objective facts (i.e., facts which don’t depend on how we use words) about how many objects there are. There is a natural way of counting up the objects in the world. In that case, the question ‘how many objects are there in w?’ is substantive. This is how I take Sider’s thought: there are better and worse concepts to use in interpreting the question. We should use those that carve at the joints. Suppose mereological composition occurs, and that the number of objects in the world includes complex objects. The right concept to use is then something like ‘object’ qua simple or mereological entity. Now, I suppose, we could ask the question ‘how many simple objects are there in w?’ That’s a perfectly fine question. But it is not the question: ‘how many objects are there in w simpliciter?’ To answer ‘two’ to the latter question would be a mistake.

Now let’s imagine that the world doesn’t have the relevant kind of structure. In that case, then we are permitted to interpret ‘object’ either the way party A does, or the way B does. The answer to our question would them seem to follow immediately. For party A, objects are mereological simples; the answer is then ‘there are two objects in w’. For B, objects can include complex entities (mereological composition occurs); the answer is then ‘there are three objects in w’[2]. There is no semantic pressure (from ‘strictly metaphysical’ considerations at least) to use one concept rather than the other. There is no privileged way of dividing up the world (one that corresponds to its natural structure) such that there is some number of objects occupying it, in a fundamental sense of ‘object’.

As Sider admits, the substantiveness of metaphysical questions will depend on whether reality has the relevant kind of structure. Showing that it does is a supremely difficult task. We might have strong intuitions in some cases – gerrymandered concepts, for instance, do not carve at the joints – but they are much weaker in others, such that intuition alone cannot help us.

As someone who leans towards deflationism, however, Sider’s thesis has humbled me. Just as it is often difficult to demonstrate that reality has the relevant kind of structure, it is also often difficult to demonstrate that it doesn’t. And that is the burden Sider foists on the deflationist, forcing him back into game he so adamantly wished to leave.

[1] I don’t think the linguistic considerations are in themselves alien or objectionable to most metaphysicians. The way we talk is often crucial to metaphysical inquiry. Reductionist projects, for example, are often based on the attempt to eliminate certain types of vocabulary from fundamental descriptions of the world. If sentences in the eliminated vocabulary can be derived from sentences in the fundamental vocabulary, then that is usually taken to provide some evidence that the things referred to in the former are less fundamental, or ‘not really real’. More strongly, if we can get away with saying what we want to say about the world without some term, that provides some evidence that the thing(s) it refers to do(es) not exist, or at least that we are not committed to their existence, and are under no obligation to account for their nature and existence. Of course, to the mainstream way of thinking in metaphysics, such linguistic and conceptual facts (e.g., that one can avoid, eliminate, or reduce some piece of language or set of concepts) don’t entail ontological facts, but, again, they may provide defeasible reasons for thinking that certain ontological facts are true.

[2] At least, the answer is easy if Party B endorses Unrestricted Mereological Composition.


What is selfishness? Whenever I ask a ‘what is’ question, an alert appears in my head: be wary of essentializing. There may be no single, unified concept of selfishness with one essence to be found. There may be no core meaning, just a “family resemblance” (Wittgenstein, 1953), a cluster of related concepts, or different uses of the word in different context with different meanings. One very modest way to take the ordinary language philosopher’s caution is as a reminder to clarify the target of analysis before conducting analysis. This may seem paradoxical, but it only seems so. It’s perfectly a familiar thing to first identify some general target of investigation and then inquire into its deeper nature and relations to other things. With that said, I’ll proceed with something vague in mind and not really bother stating it up front.

A first approximation: to be selfish is to put one’s own interest ahead of others. Whenever there is a tradeoff between such interests, one will privilege one’s own. That is a minimal claim; it is certainly not selfishness as commonly understood. It is a perfectly ordinary and accepted part of human nature to give some additional weight to one’s own interests and those one cares about. Misanthropes point to this feature as evidence of the universal ‘selfishness’ of humanity. Perhaps they are using the same concept as the rest of us. If so, perhaps we simply have lower standards. We expect and forgive some partiality. Indeed many of us regard it as healthy. To be completely impartial with respect to oneself and those one loves may be seen as strange, or monstrous, or overzealous. Now let’s bracket the privileging of the interests of loved ones; if such intrafamilial partiality is ‘selfish’, it would seem to be so only in the particularly demanding sense that the misanthrope favours.

So consider privileging self-interest. It seems that the question is one of degree: how much privileging of one’s own singular interest is acceptable before one is counted as selfish? There is a clear limit case: the person who acts according to their own interest no matter what other interests are involved is clearly selfish. But much less than this qualifies as selfishness. If I would gain 2 points of utility by doing A, and suffer -2 points of utility by doing B, and you would lose -2 points from A and gain 2 points from B, it seems acceptable for me to do A. But how much disutility do you have to suffer by my doing A (and gaining 2 points of utility) in order for it to be unacceptable for me to do A? Perhaps any excess of disutility (relative to that which I would suffer by doing B and perhaps also gain by doing A) makes doing A unacceptable. Inflicting suffering demands high rewards. If I change the example so that now I gain 50 points of utility by doing A and thereby inflict -3 points of disutility on you, we might consider it acceptable (even if doing B still imposes on me a small cost of -2).

Now consider tradeoffs without disutility/suffering. Is it acceptable for me to do A and gain 4 points, rather than B and gain 2, if doing A entails a gain of 2 for you, and B, 4 for you? It seems like it to me. Deciding when it is not acceptable is a difficult practical judgement which will have to be sensitive to many perhaps irreducible local considerations.

That has been quite abstract. Some observations I take to be relatively pre-theoretical or at least not formulated with anything close to an explicit utilitarian calculus.

  • I think that most people would be helpful if it weren’t painful to them in some way. Unfortunately, some people are built in a way that increases that pain. This ultimately compounds their suffering given that helping others directly contributes to having a good life with rich social connections.
  • Most of us do want to help and do help, but in our own unique way – the way that’s least painful to us and which suits our abilities and nature.
  • Aristotle argued that to be a good friend to others, one must be a good friend to oneself. This means knowing how to be good to oneself – to care intrinsically for oneself (which comes easily naturally) and to do so by promoting one’s intrinsic good (which is harder, requiring philosophy).

I’ll take my own case as an example. My relatively inflexible adherence to routines results in it being painful to help others in some circumstances. In my rationalisations, I use this pain as an excuse. To put it starkly and in utilitarian terms: I could do A (follow my routine) and gain 3 utility points, or B and lose -10 utility points (because I am neurotic). Now what if doing A has a small negative impact or a near-0 impact on person S, and doing B gives S 4 utility points? How high does the utility that S derives from B have to be before it becomes unacceptable for me to do A? Wouldn’t it have to at least equal my suffering? The reason doing A appears to be selfish, so my rationalisation goes, is that observers are not seeing the disutility I would incur in doing B, perhaps because of a failure of insight into my neurotic condition, or an inability to empathize with it.

But notice that talk of ‘utility points’ overlooks the wisdom Aristotle (et al) imparts to us: perhaps doing B is in my deeper self-interest despite the immediate hedonic penalty it entails. Of course, the fact that I would – in the long run – gain by doing B rather than A does not make what I do (A) selfish! It makes it irrational, or at least unwise, foolish, tragic, pitiable. Another consideration – one which does directly argue against my rationalisation – is that I am responsible for having developed the condition which results in my finding B (the helping action) aversive. I have constructed a life and a set of habits which set me up for non-helping behaviour, and thereby undermine my own enlightened self-interest. Thus, the irrational failure to pursue my own intrinsic good has changed the interpersonal scorecard so that there is – regrettably – some truth in my rationalisation. But it is clear that I have made some kind of mistake. We might describe that sort of mistake as selfishness. We can then see an example of what Aristotle was on about when he united self-love and love of others, transcending the contradiction too often accepted by subsequent thinkers between altruism and egoism. To truly love oneself simply is to love others.


As I mentioned, I don’t claim that the foregoing gets at any essence of selfishness. I have focused on cases of putatively selfish actions and cases of failures to lend assistance to others. These can both, I think, be thought of in terms of some kind of utilitarian calculation. To choose to help is to choose action B where B involves an immediate cost to oneself and an immediate benefit to another. The question I posed can be seen as the question of when choosing action B is supererogatory and hence when choosing action A is not selfish. That is, how high does the cost to oneself have to be before doing B is not required (i.e., may be regarded as supererogatory)?

But my concern is that I have missed something. It seems that selfishness is not always best thought of in terms of actions. It may be possible to assimilate all (all?) forms of selfishness to the category I have described, but even if it is, there may be other, more appropriate conceptualisations possible. For instance, it seems that selfishness can pertain to a way of life. The loner who avoids social situations and is concerned only with his own thoughts, projects, desires, experiences and interests may be considered selfish, even if – in some sense – he fails to perform any selfish actions. He satisfies the ‘no selfish actions’ conditions for being unselfish, but does so trivially. By design, he has isolated himself from circumstances in which he may be called upon to help others and so on.

Now consider a similar case: a non-loner who is only concerned with himself. Even though he exposes himself to society and thus, almost inevitably, opportunities to help, and he does the minimum to act in conformity with obligations of assistance (granting whatever conventional standards apply), he may still be selfish. He doesn’t care about others, their interests, desires, experiences, etc. This is what those around him find off-putting and vaguely objectionable, even if they can’t fault his overt behaviour. Perhaps such a person is not typically described as ‘selfish’. Perhaps other adjectives are better suited to his character: he may be called ‘self-centred’, ‘self-involved’, ‘heartless’, ‘cold’, ‘aloof’, and so on.

This category of selfishness, if we can call it that, incurs pity more than scorn. It again exemplifies the sort of error Aristotle warns us of. Such people are regarded as failing to participate properly in society.

At this point, it is worth distinguishing cases where ‘self-involved’ individuals perform to a minimum standard from those where they do not. The former case present a difficulty: is it possible to perform one’s ethical duties in a purely perfunctory manner, or do some duties require us to care about others? It seems that at least some obligations have as their content the requirement to care about others. If that is right, then the truly self-involved person, as described, cannot perform all their moral duties. So we might have to redescribe the first case: there are some who are self-involved and perform all duties to a minimum standard except those duties involving concern for others. (Of course, I am talking in stark terms for illustrative purposes).

The failure of such people to connect, contribute and be part of the community might suggest, to some at least, that they do not deserve all the benefits of social cooperation. If their failure of character isn’t its own punishment – if by ‘luck’ his emotional and ethical failure doesn’t itself cause him observable pain – the more critical members of his community may then begin to shift their attitudes away from pity towards scorn, to the degree warranted by the case.

Extra-linguistic facts

I tried to say something uncontroversial, and perhaps it is commonsensical in spirit. But there are few interesting claims which can be articulated in more than a cursory manner without becoming contentious. Even that one, probably.

Here I try to account for extra-linguistic facts. In particular, I ask whether there is good sense to be made of the notion of facts which don’t depend on the way we use words. In the background are various theories such as social constructionism and deconstruction.

What are extra-linguistic facts? Two intuitive responses seem to be in tension. On the one hand, we want to say that they are the things that linguistic symbols point to, refer to, stand for, denote, represent, etc. On the other, we don’t want to say that the entities in question are themselves ‘facts’. Facts are propositional – they involve things like quantification, at a minimum of complexity. For example, a cat isn’t a fact. “A cat exists” is a fact. “Jarred the cat exists” is a fact. But put this way, facts look essentially linguistic. It seems impossible to distinguish a fact and the statement of a fact (and statements are unavoidably linguistic). In order to make such facts extra-linguistic we might conceive of them as structured propositions. Structured propositions are “complex entities, entities having parts or constituents, where the constituents are bound together in a certain way” (King, 2011). They are, in other words, arrangements of things in the world (objects, properties, relations, regions, times… exactly which entities you want to talk about will be determined by your ontology). So, a cat could, apparently, constitute a structured proposition. But is it a fact, too? Perhaps all facts are structured propositions, but not all structured propositions are facts. Or perhaps not! I’m not sure. Maybe there is a one-to-one correspondence between structured propositions and facts.  In that case, the cat would be a fact. That looks weird. Still, it seems to get us the result we want: there are extra-linguistic facts, and this is what they are like.

But doesn’t this approach smuggle in language by describing the entity constituting the proposition (i.e., the cat) in a certain way, (i.e., ‘the cat’)? Whether “there is a cat” is true depends on whether it is a fact that there is a cat. The question is whether the latter is extra-linguistic, i.e., doesn’t depend on linguistic matters (what words mean). I think it is. Changing the meaning of our words doesn’t change whether or not it is a fact that there is a cat. It can only change what ‘cat’ means. If we change the meaning of the word ‘cat’ such that it refers only to dogs, then it might not be true that ‘there is a cat’, because there is a cat, but possibly no dog – that is, because we have only been given the fact that there is a cat.

Notice that when I use the word ‘cat’ in stating the fact, I am using it with its standard meaning. I could just as well state the fact using the word ‘dog’ given its just-now stipulated meaning. None of this changes what I have stated, which, recall, we are supposing is a structured proposition, i.e., the thing in the world, the cat.

Remember the old story about Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is said to have asked: “how many legs would a dog have, if we called the dog’s tail, a ‘leg’?  Five? No, calling a tail a leg don’t make it a leg.” We can distinguish two claims that might be made here. There is the claim  “If we called a dog’s tail a ‘leg’, then it would be true that dogs have five legs”. This is the claim that Lincoln denies, and rightly so. The sentence is false. Dogs would not have five tails. Here, the word ‘legs’ is used in the second clause, viz., “dogs have five legs”. But in a variant of the example, the claim might be made: “If we called a dog’s tail a ‘leg’, then it would be true that dogs have five ‘legs'”. This claim is true. Here, ‘legs’ is being mentioned. The sentence is merely claiming that dogs would have five ‘legs’, under the new definition of ‘leg’. One can consistently deny the first sentence while endorsing the second. A dog can have, as it were, five ‘legs’ and four legs, if we keep the use/mention distinction in mind, and know that when ‘legs’ are mentioned here, it is given the newly stipulated meaning.

The only point I wish to make in concession to the ‘linguistic constructionist’ (a vague label) is that which facts we recognize, or are inclined to see, are those which can be stated in our language and which are conceptualized in our ‘conceptual scheme’.

What I am suggesting – and this is an empirical claim along the lines of the so-called weak Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis – is that if indeed we called tails ‘legs’ and had no word for tails, we would be less likely to recognise the fact that dogs have only four legs. And if we had no concept of <tail> then such a recognition may not even be possible. Possibly, would would not be able to make that discrimination*. In the life-world of the person without the vocabulary or concept of <leg> as we understand it, legs would not exist in the everyday sense; they would not be salient.

I should quickly emphasize the distinction between words and concepts. Obviously it is possible to make a given discrimination without having the vocabulary for it, otherwise nonhuman animals would have a hard time getting on in the world. But words and concepts appear to be intimately related in human psychology; learning and using language helps shape and facilitate the deployment of various concepts, and how we use words is shaped by our prior ‘conceptual scheme’. So having the words for a given discrimination makes it more likely that we will deploy the relevant concept and hence make that discrimination. Also note that ‘discrimination’ in the relevant sense is not mere perceptual discrimination. Of course in some sense any creature with a comparably powerful visual system will perceive a difference between legs and tails. But I am interested in something stronger: a conceptual discrimination. A discrimination is conceptual if it distinguishes two or more types of thing. To conceptually discriminate between a tail and a leg is to register the existence of two types of entity, associated with (or constituted by) various properties and conditions. Thus, conceptual discriminations are not merely numerical discriminations. An alien visitor might distinguish a chimpanzee and a human standing side-by-side in the minimal sense of observing that there are two animals standing next to each other, but fail to make the conceptual distinction between humans and chimps. They might only have the very coarse notion of <humanoid animal>.

* Thanks to Noon for bringing various issues here to my attention. This is one of the more contentious claims I make. Part of what is problematic about claiming that concepts are necessary to make the relevant kinds of discrimination is that ‘concept’ is ambiguous. I have tried to avoid the difficult matter of giving a theory of concepts – a subject on which there is of course an enormous literature. To do any justice to the issues here, one would have to be given. All I would say for the moment is that I am working with a fairly generous concept of concepts.

Noon suggested that a person could notice a clydesdale in a lineup of horses and register it as of a different type without having the concept <clydesdale horse> or even <draft horse>. Several points. First, I think lacking such concepts (and/or words) would make this less likely. Second, were it achieved, the ability to discriminate between the horses in the lineup might depend on having a relatively narrow concept of <typical horse> which is used to eliminate the clydesdale. Third, if we stipulate that the person has never seen horses, and has never developed concepts directly related to horses, and yet manages to make the discrimination, we run up against a sort of paradox. If we insist that the person forms inchoate concepts in reaction to the information they are exposed to, and that is how they are making their discrimination, we question is: how do they form those concepts, if not on the basis of a prior discrimination? We need concepts to make discriminations, but we need discriminations to form concepts in the first place. I’m sure empirical psychology would have a lot to say here. I would only gesture towards the possibility that base-level perceptual discriminations begin a process of concept-construction which draws in various other related but more mature concepts, forming primitive concepts and allowing very rough conceptual discriminations.



King, J 2011, Structured Propositions, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.)